GRAHAM HAND. No, Gladys, build it and they will not come

Dec 8, 2017

The NSW Government has announced it will knock down and rebuild Allianz Stadium at Moore Park at a cost of $700 million and the Olympic Stadium at Homebush, only 17 years old, at a cost of $1.6 billion. However, there is little ‘business case’ evidence that new stadiums would make a material difference to attendances at football games, although Sports Minister, Stuart Ayres argues, “With better quality facilities, more people will come and attend matches.”  

The politics are terrible for the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and her Government. Over 130,000 people have signed an online petition against the proposal in only two weeks. The ABC reported NSW and National MPs were outraged by the weapon handed to the Opposition, quoting one MP as saying, “Labor has a narrative they can use every day until the next election – ‘you can’t have that money for the school but you can have $2 billion on stadiums’.”

Where is everybody?

On a sunny Sunday, 21 March 2010, a couple of hundred football (aka soccer) fans waited on The Domain for the luxury coach carrying the Sydney FC team to arrive direct from the airport. The previous day in Melbourne, Sydney had won the A-League Grand Final on penalties after extra time when South Korean Byun Sung-hwan scored the winner. A stage had been erected, food trucks arrived and it was a chance to celebrate with the returning heroes. Sydney FC had completed an historic double, delivering the Championship to go with the Premier’s Plate for winning the league, but obvious question was: where is everybody?

In the following season, 2010/2011, the average home attendance was a dismal 8,014, half the number in the first season of 2005/2006.

Fast forward seven years and Sydney had not won a trophy in the intervening period. The 2012 excitement of Alessandro Del Piero (record holder for playing the most games for Juventus and 92 caps for Italy) had come and gone. But now something far more special was happening.

Sydney FC was playing the best football in its 13-year history. It was an enthralling season of exciting football built around player of the year, Milos Ninkovic. Sydney went on to hold the treble (including the FFA Cup) for the first time and broke records that may stand forever, including winning the league by an unbelievable 17 points.

Yet in the middle of that winning 2016/2017 season, Round 19, only 8,380 turned up to watch the Wellington game, and the average main season home game attendance was 16,001. In Del Piero’s first year, 2012/2013, it reached a record average of 18,737. Sydney’s home ground of Allianz Stadium holds 45,500. Where is everybody? Here is football at the highest standard Australia is ever likely to muster, and in the country’s biggest city, the crowds are disappointingly small.

What’s it like to watch games at Allianz Stadium?

In a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald, the Chairman of the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust, Tony Shepherd, wrote:

“People who claim the stadium is perfectly fine clearly don’t go there. The venue is rusted, ageing and doesn’t meet modern safety standards.”

Well, Mr Shepherd, I go there regularly. Watching Sydney FC at Allianz is one of my favourite activities. I am a Foundation Member and I have held a season ticket since 2005. I rarely miss a home game and sometimes travel to away games. I don’t sit in the corporate boxes but prefer the seats with the hoi polloi who sing the songs and love this Sydney team. I want to concentrate on the game, especially when Sydney is so enthrallingly good, rather than entertain guests or sip on champagne while eating canapes.

At the recent FFA Cup Final, I asked a few people near me whether they wanted a new stadium. All said the existing stadium is fine.

Allianz is a rectangular field and fans sit close to the action. My season ticket is in the exact place I want. It’s near the halfway line, about 20 rows back under cover, behind where Graham Arnold prowls like an angry leopard. I can see him losing his temper, planning his moves, shouting at players. Heaven.

Last year, the Stadium made a stunning improvement. At each end, massive video screens fill the space behind the goals. The replays are excellent, in crystal clear dimensions on the best screens at any ground I’ve attended (and I’ve been to the last three World Cups in Germany, South Africa and Brazil).

The food is a poor effort, but that has little to do with the design of the Stadium. It could be significantly improved by realising not all football fans want weak beer for $9 to wash down a $6 meat pie. The toilets are bad and I understand facilities for people with physical disabilities are sub-standard, but they can surely be fixed.

A season ticket for Sydney’s 14 homes games for an adult costs as little at $270. It’s far more expensive to watch Paul McCartney for two hours. A modest $20 a game is an entertainment bargain in this expensive city where it costs $70 to park in the CBD for a day.

Australians love playing and watching soccer

Soccer is by far the largest participation sport in Australia. Reports Roy Morgan Research:

Soccer has been the big winner of the new century so far, gaining almost 200,000 regular participants (up 46 percent to 623,000). Now the most-played competitive sport in Australia, in 2001 soccer was fourth on the list.” 

Soccer fans also love to watch the game live. The Socceroos recently attracted 77,060 to the final World Cup qualifying game against Honduras. An incredible 163,652 attended two friendly Arsenal games (v Sydney FC 80,432 and v Western Sydney Wanderers 83,221) in July 2017. That’s more than watch Arsenal at their home ground in London. The Liverpool game against Sydney FC in May 2017 drew 72,892, despite Liverpool including several retired players such as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. An ageing Steve McManaman was an embarrassment. These games have no competitive meaning and no tension but the public flocks to them.

There is simply no comparison with the excitement of a Sydney FC competition game from the reigning champions. Writing as someone who has followed Manchester United for 55 years, most of the fans at the Arsenal and Liverpool games show Euro snobbery and don’t realise how good the local game is.

Let’s concede that the first game of the 2016/2017 in the A-League was amazing. Sydney FC played Wanderers at ANZ Stadium and a record club crowd of 61,880 turned up. It was a fantastic atmosphere. A few months later, where is everybody?

What’s the pool of available fans to attend regularly at Allianz?

Sydney FC has only 13,613 members, and it needs a lot of walkups for a decent attendance. The average crowd in 2017/2018 to date is 15,793 but that includes the Sydney home derby at 36,057. The worry is that Sydney has found a new attendance level of about 15,000 for regular games despite playing such excellent football. A new stadium of 30,000 or 45,000 will have masses of empty seats except at one or two a year. Only 10,044 watched Brisbane recently.

What about the rugby and league crowds?

Allianz is shared with rugby league’s Sydney Roosters and rugby’s NSW Waratahs.

In 2017, the NSW Waratahs recorded the lowest crowd in its 21-year history, 10,555 on 26 April 2017. The average for the season was 14,500.

In the 11 main season games played by the Sydney Roosters NRL team at Allianz, the average attendance was 13,971.

Worse, what happens during the rebuilding?

When it was first announced that Allianz Stadium would be knocked down and rebuilt, the three major tenants said in a statement in April 2016:

“When teams are displaced from their established home ground, the impact is negative and of a long-term nature. Some clubs never recover.”

Exactly. The Government has indicated it may compensate the clubs while the new stadium is built. Western Sydney Wanderers may never recover from their move away from Parramatta Stadium during its reconstruction. Wanderers now play at Spotless Stadium at Homebush in front of 8,000 people and the fan experience is a shadow of its former glory.

What will Sydney do during the rebuild, perish the thought? Three seasons at either Leichhardt Oval in Sydney inner west, Jubilee Oval down south in Kogarah or maybe the Sydney Cricket Ground. Every choice will alienate a large section of the fan base, and neither of the suburban grounds has much parking. Sydney fans from the north will not want to drive to Kogarah, Leichardt is in the crowded inner city with its traffic problems (and building of WestConnex) and the SCG would be a dust bowl of oval-shaped sadness. Little players kicking a ball in the distance on a field where nobody has played soccer for a good reason for many years.

Where to from here?

Last year, I noticed a small panel of plasterboard near my seat was coming unstuck. I advised Sydney FC and was told that they were only a tenant, and no money is being spent on the stadium because it is likely to be torn down. Little wonder it is ‘rusty and ageing’. All buildings, especially a public stadium built from steel, need maintenance. Mr Shepherd’s article outlined the safety, dressing room and toilet facilities that need fixing. Okay, fix them, maintain the place and find a better use for most of the $700 million.

If fans are not turning up to watch the best Sydney FC team in its history, despite the obvious popularity of soccer, a new stadium will do little to improve the numbers.


Graham Hand is Managing Editor of the free financial newsletter, Cuffelinks. Cuffelinks publishes insights from market professionals with a focus on investing and superannuation.  

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